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White-marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma)

Detailing the physical features, habits, territorial reach and other identifying qualities of the White-marked Tussock Moth

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The caterpillar for the White-marked Tussock Moth looks almost alien, but be sure to look and not touch.

Updated: 05/02/2022; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.InsectIdentification.org
The long, spiky tufts of hairs give fair warning to anyone or anything that tries to touch this species' larva. The White-marked Tussock Moth caterpillar is covered with them and the chemicals that are transferred onto skin when they are touched can cause an allergic reaction in humans resulting in redness, irritation, and welts. Pruritic dermatitis (itching) is commonly seen in small children who come into contact with it, or its cocoon, on the playground. It also has four tight tufts of yellowish-white hairs that look like pom poms on its back near the bright red head. These hairs are barbed, making them difficult to remove from skin. Two clusters of long black quills extend from either side of the head. Beneath an array of black and white hairs is a yellow-and-black striped body that ends in another cluster of long brown-black hairs at the tip of the abdomen.

By comparison, the adult form of White-marked Tussock seems dull. Adult moths, however, do have remarkable feathery antennae and tufts of hair on their legs. They are on the wing year-round in warmer regions. Adults and larvae can be found in forested areas. Both deciduous and evergreen trees are host plants. In northern areas, this species has caused damage on Christmas tree farms.

Female moths are flightless and stay near their own empty cocoons. Eggs are laid on it and covered with a secretion to protect them. Shortly after doing this, the female moth dies. The eggs overwinter and caterpillars emerge in the spring. After growing, the spiky caterpillar weaves a white cocoon around itself that resembles a white ball of laundry lint with some long black hairs woven throughout it. Irritation is possible if touched. After pupating for a couple of weeks, the adult emerges.©InsectIdentification.org

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General Characteristics

Capability, Shape, Texture/Pattern, Benefits, Dangers
Flying insect icon
Hairy insect icon
Spiny / Spiky insect icon

Taxonomic Hierarchy

Species Breakdown
Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Arthropoda
    Class: Insecta
      Order: Lepidoptera
        Family: Erebidae
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          Genus: Orgyia
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            Species: leucostigma

Identifying Information

Size, Colors, Features
Scientific Name: Orgyia leucostigma
Category: Butterfly or Moth
Size (Adult; Length): 12mm to 35mm (0.47" to 1.37")
Colorwheel Graphic Colors: white; black; orange; gray; brown
Descriptors: spiky; hairy; feather; flying; bumps

Relative Size Comparison

Typical Size Between 12mm (0.5in) and 35mm (1.4in)
Lo: 12mm
Md: 23.5mm
Hi: 35mm

Territorial Map*

U.S., Canada, and Mexico
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Territory map graphic of the country of Mexico
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Prince Edward Is.  
* MAP NOTES: The territorial heat map above showcases (in red) the states and territories of North America where the White-marked Tussock Moth may be found (but is not limited to). This sort of data is useful when attempting to see concentrations of particular species across the continent as well as revealing possible migratory patterns over a species' given lifespan. Some insects are naturally confined by environment, weather, mating habits, food resources and the like while others see widespread expansion across most, or all, of North America. States/Territories shown above are a general indicator of areas inhabited by the White-marked Tussock Moth. Insects generally go where they please, typically driven by diet, environmental changes, and / or mating habits.
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